“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.”
Eugene O’Neill’s acclaimed play was, in his own words, “written in tears and blood”. Strongly autobiographical, it is a harrowing glimpse into a family inexorably sinking into the quicksand of its own past.
At the centre of the family is Mary – wife to retired actor James, and mother to Jamie and Edmund (and dead baby Eugene). Her morphine addiction has blighted the boys’ childhood, and now the family is enmeshed in a destructive cycle of guilt and blame. Suspicion, disappointment, resentment, anger and bitterness seep into every exchange, while each member seeks out their own preferred means of individual oblivion. It is a devastating watch but is rescued from feeling relentless by gossamer threads of genuine love, warmth and even tenderness that somehow – miraculously – still survive, and which keep reappearing just in time to pull the characters back from the brink of mutual destruction.
From the outset, Dominic Hill’s naturalistic direction creates a sense of a totally authentic family. Though spectacularly dysfunctional, there is something here for all of us to recognise. Characters speak over each other, familiar refrains are echoed – affectionately or mockingly – and there is a tangible sense of shared history, of family jokes and family taboos. The writing is, of course, brilliant; without any need for exposition, the family skeletons reveal themselves bone by bone.
Powerful performances from the entire cast ensure that the deeply flawed characters remain sympathetic. Sam Phillips is especially impressive as the dissolute older son, Jamie, who exemplifies the complex love/hate nature of the family dynamic. Among the most moving moments in the play is Jamie’s despairing, drunken confession to Edmund – that, despite his love for his brother, he has always blamed him for their mother’s addiction and feels compelled by jealousy and bitterness to undermine everything he does. Phillips gives a truly heartbreaking performance here, perfectly capturing Jamie’s tortured soul and his overwhelming sense of helplessness – driven by forces, external and internal, beyond his control.
The authentic naturalism of Hill’s direction is contrasted with Tom Piper’s exquisite, metaphorical set design. While Mary and Edmund yearn for the anonymity and comfort of the swirling fog outside (“It hides you from the world, and the world from you”), everything is fully exposed inside Piper’s transparent, skeletal structure. And at the top of the stairs stands a gently luminescent wedding dress: a striking symbol of hopeful beginnings and the repository of Mary’s dreams. By the end of the play it hangs, greying and limp, in her husband’s arms.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night takes place over a single day, but packed into that day are decades of pain, disappointment and struggle. It is exhausting and often brutal – a true reflection of O’Neill’s own experience. But O’Neill also claims to have written the play “with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness …” and this is very much reflected in Hill’s sensitive production. We are left with a profound sadness and compassion for a family terminally mired in regret and hopelessness.